Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

Chapter VI: The Winter of 1863-4: Death of Mrs. Fitzhugh Lee

The Document

To his daughter-in-law my father was devoutedly attached. His love for her was like that for his own children, and when her husband was captured and thrown, wounded, into prison, his great tenderness for her was shown on all occasions. Her death about this time, though expected, was a great blow to him. When news came to Gen. W. H. F. Lee, at Fortress Monroe, that his wife Charlotte was dying in Richmond, he made application to General Butler, commanding that post, that he be allowed to go to her for 48 hours, his brother Custis Lee, of equal rank with himself, having formally volunteered in writing to take his place, as a hostage, was curtly and peremptorily refused.

In his letter to my mother, of December 27th, my father says:

"...Custis's despatch which I received last night demolished all the hopes, in which I had been indulging during the day, of dear Charlotte's recovery. It has pleased God to take from us one exceedingly dear to us, and we must be resigned to His holy will. She, I trust, will enjoy peace and happiness forever, while we must patiently struggle on under all the ills that may be in store for us. What a glorious thought it is that she has joined her little cherubs and our angel Annie [his second daughter] in Heaven. Thus is link by link the strong chain broken that binds us to the earth, and our passage soothed to another world. Oh, that we may be at last united in that heaven of rest, where trouble and sorrow never enter, to join in an everlasting chorus of praise and glory to our Lord and Saviour! I grieve for our lost darling as a father only can grieve for a daughter, and my sorrow is heightened by the thought of the anguish her death will cause our dear son and the poignancy it will give to the bars of his prison. May God in His mercy enable him to bear the blow He has so suddenly dealt, and sanctify it to his everlasting happiness!"

After Meade's last move, the weather becoming wintry, the troops fixed up for themselves winter quarters, and the cavalry and artillery were sent back along the line of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, where forage could be more easily obtained for their horses. On January 24, 1864, the General writes to my mother:

"...I have had to disperse the cavalry as much as possible, to obtain forage for their horses, and it is that which causes trouble. Provisions for the men, too, are very scarce, and, with very light diet and light clothing, I fear they suffer, but still they are cheerful and uncomplaining. I received a report from one division the other day in which it stated that over four hundred men were barefooted and over a thousand without blankets."

Lee was the idol of his men. Colonel Charles Marshall, who was his A. D. C. and military secretary, illustrates this well in the following incident:

"While the Army was on the Rapidan, in the winter of 1863-4, it became necessary, as was often the case, to put the men on very short rations. Their duty was hard, not only on the outposts during the winter, but in the construction of roads, to facilitate communication between the different parts of the army. One day General Lee received a letter from a private soldier, whose name I do not now remember, informing him of the work that he had to do, and stating that his rations were not sufficient to enable him to undergo the fatigue. He said, however, that if it was absolutely necessary to put him on such short allowance, he would make the best of it, but that he and his comrades wanted to know if General Lee was aware that his men were getting so little to eat, because if he was aware of it he was sure there must be some necessity for it. General Lee did not reply directly to the letter, but issued a general order in which he informed the soldiers of his efforts in their behalf, and that their privation was beyond his means of present relief, but assured them that he was making every effort to procure sufficient supplies. After that there was not a murmur in the army, and the hungry men went cheerfully to their hard work."

When I returned to the army in the summer, I reported to my old brigade, which was gallantly commanded by John R. Chambliss, colonel of the 13th Virginia Cavalry, the senior officer of the brigade. Later, I had been assigned to duty with General Fitz Lee and was with him at this time. My mother was anxious that I should be with my father, thinking, I have no doubt, that my continued presence would be a comfort to him. She must have written him to that effect, for in a letter to her, dated February, 1864, he says:

"...In reference to Rob, his company would be a great pleasure and comfort to me, and he would be extremely useful in various ways, but I am opposed to officers surrounding themselves with their sons and relatives. It is wrong in principle, and in that case selections would be made from private and social relations, rather than for the public good. There is the same objection to his going with Fitz Lee. I should prefer Rob's being in the line, in an independent position, where he could rise by his own merit and not through the recommendation of his relatives. I expect him soon, when I can better see what he himself thinks. The young men have no fondness for the society of the old general. He is too heavy and sombre for them...."

If anything was said to me on this occasion by my father, I do not remember it. I rather think that something prevented the interview, for I cannot believe that it could have entirely escaped my memory. At any rate, I remained with General Fitz Lee until my brother's return from prison in April of that year. Fitz Lee's brigade camped near Charlottesville, on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, in January, in order that forage could be more readily obtained. The officers, to amuse themselves and to return in part the courtesies and kindnesses of the ladies of the town, gave a ball. It was a grand affair for those times. Committees were appointed and printed invitations issued. As a member of the invitation committee, I sent one to the general commanding the army. Here is his opinion of it, in a letter to me:

"...I inclose a letter for you, which has been sent to my care. I hope you are well and all around you are so. Tell Fitz I grieve over the hardships and sufferings of his men, in their late expedition. I should have preferred his waiting for more favourable weather. He accomplished much under the circumstances, but would have done more in better weather. I am afraid he was anxious to get back to the ball. This is a bad time for such things. We have too grave subjects on hand to engage in such trivial amusements. I would rather his officers should entertain themselves in fattening their horses, healing their men, and recruiting their regiments. There are too many Lees on the committee. I like all to be present at the battles, but can excuse them at balls. But the saying is, 'Children will be children.' I think he had better move his camp farther from Charlottesville, and perhaps he will get more work and less play. He and I are too old for such assemblies. I want him to write me how his men are, his horses, and what I can do to full up the ranks...."

Next: Preparations to meet General Grant

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Lee, Robert E. jr., The Recollections & Letters of Robert E. Lee,, webpage created by Rickard, J (8 June 2006),

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